Interview: Federico Properzi, UN Water

Federico Properzi talks to The Water Diplomat about the UN Water Conference

18 May 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Federico Properzi UN Water


Tobias Schmitz: At the last UN Water Conference in Mar del Plata in 1977, member states prepared national plans in advance and ultimately met for a period of two weeks. In the 2023 UN Water Conference, the agenda was fairly open and the meeting lasted three days. This puts quite a lot of pressure on achieving the outcomes in a short space of time. At the same time, attendance was unexpectedly high with a broad range of stakeholders beyond individual member states. To what extent are you satisfied from the point of view of UN Water with what has been achieved in New York? 


Federico Properzi: Thank you. UN Water is the collection of all the members and therefore when I say we, we are referring to the UN Water family, including the custodian agencies. As to 1977: those were very different times, communications were way different, and everything was printed in the time before our present technology like computers and travel, so it all took time for the delegations to exchange and agree on something. So that's why conferences in those days were different and indeed the conference lasted for almost 2 weeks. Also, the intention was to have a negotiated outcome and a declaration, so member states really needed time to sit together and discuss in person. And in addition, another main difference with respect to New York 2023 was that it was only a discussion among member states and without stakeholders.

Tobias Schmitz: Indeed, and New York was a multi stakeholder process

Federico Properzi: Yes, it [Mar del Plata] was a very traditional UN conference. If New York had been geared towards a political declaration, certainly members states would have been negotiating far in advance of the conference. So, the fact that the New York conference was only for three days does not make it less important. And of course, it felt very intense: I mean, look at the side events, think there were more than 1000 requests of which only a couple of hundreds could be accommodated inside the UN. Therefore, a lot was happening outside the building to accommodate stakeholders who would not necessarily go to a UN conferences and it happened in parallel with New York week so there was a lot happening in Brooklyn, in Queens, etcetera, far from the midtown area.

But what really happened was that it was the first time in many years that Member States and the other stakeholders came together under the UN flag to discuss water issues and first of all share what everyone is doing. There was no declaration, and this was by design. We do however have the Water Action Agenda, I think this was a very smart move by the Netherlands and Tajikistan: everyone is making voluntary commitments and it creates this one place where you have all these actions together: we are all united under the same space and we're all working on the same agenda. And in that way the dialogue has commenced, and it's been a good opportunity.


Tobias Schmitz: The UN-Water family has come a long way in preparing the road for the implementation of SDG 6 since 2015: identifying pilot countries for the testing of the indicators and data reporting mechanisms for the indicators under SDG 6, validating the methods, and subsequently reaching out to countries to support them on a data drive towards an integrated monitoring system that embraces the water cycle. At the same time, we are now three years into the implementation of the Global Acceleration Mechanism for SDG 6. Are you satisfied with the progress being made with data collection and implementation, and what more can be done currently by the UN to support SDG 6 implementation? 


Federico Properzi: We have known for some time that SDG 6 is off track, and in July 2020 we launched the SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework, which has now established itself as an overarching framework which looks at some cross cutting accelerators, and one reason for that is by not mentioning sectors, we are breaking with the silos in in our sector. And you know, this was done on purpose. Now of course we do have the structure of the dialogues from the conference. So, we have two ways of cutting and analysing what we do. And when it comes to what more can we do: of course this was the essence of the conference: we have the reports from the interactive dialogues and they are leading the way as well as the summary of the President of the General Assembly. These are all useful, and financing is also important, but a lot is about governance: information is available, but it is spread out, and what is lacking is global policy coherence.

So this is something that we'll keep coming back to it was mentioned in the closing session of the conference that we need another conference because currently it is the closest thing that we can actually get to achieve global policy coherence: as you know, the water sector does not have a dedicated global policy space. And it takes it takes a lot of effort to organise a conference at UN level: it takes 3 years from the moment a resolution has been passed.  


Tobias Schmitz: In New York, more than 800 commitments have been made under the umbrella of the Water Action Agenda. As we move towards The High-Level Political Forum in July this year, what are your views on the ways in which an integrated water action agenda can be crafted out of all the commitments on the table? 


Federico Properzi: Coherence is of course a very nice thing to have, and certainly the UN family has been working very hard to bring the different actors together. The SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework is a good example of transversal thinking, i.e.  agreeing on some common agenda points which can take things forward right across the board and independently of sectors.

What we are really pushing for is integration at country level: we are linking with the UN resident coordinators at country level who are responsible for cooperation at the country level and aligning the expertise of UN agencies and other partners, based on the guiding national policy documents on sustainable development and a whole of government approach, rather than operating at individual project level.

You mentioned the Special Envoy for Water: as you know, 149 Member States are calling for that, and in his closing remarks, the Secretary General stated that he will be considering that. So we will see if that happens: a Special Envoy would be a great ambassador for all of us, and especially is someone is chosen who can take on the UN machinery without pushing for sectoral agendas: we need a unifying figure, which I believe is certainly possible. But we really need that leadership.


Tobias Schmitz: Given again the commitments made in New York, to what extent is UN Water expected to assist in monitoring the implementation of the various engagements beyond the strict confines of SDG 6, and how would you see reporting on this agenda moving forward? 


Federico Properzi: We are working very closely with UNDESA for everything related to the management of the Water Action Agenda platform, supporting the design and screening of incoming commitments. And of course, the special event in July is jointly convened between us. As I was mentioning before, the beauty of the water action agenda is that it puts all these actions together in one public space. It may not be very easy to browse or commitments, but they are there in the public. UNDESA is planning to produce an analysis of the voluntary commitments, contacting the 800 commitments registered, and ask for a progress update on what's happening. Probably, only a certain percentage of the 800 will respond, but all these responses will be in the public space. We see that benchmarking and peer pressure in this context is a real tool.

When everything becomes public, all sectors of society can check in with that and encourage the implementation of those commitments. It is a soft form of accountability, based on a voluntary mechanism. So, when it comes to the follow up and review of all of this, we see this happening in different ways: there is the annual pivotal SDG 6 / Water Action Agenda Special Event of HLPF, but there will be opportunities in other sectors. For example, at the upcoming Food Systems Stocktake this July in Rome.

Tobias Schmitz: Given the fact that water is expected to occupy a more prominent position in the global agenda, with the possible appointment of a UN Envoy for Water and other such mechanisms, to what extent could there be a need for a strengthening of UN Water as an interagency coordinating mechanism and given political support for this, what kinds of things could be done to achieve it? 


Federico Properzi: The possible strengthening of UN Water has been mentioned for a few years. During the conference we heard a few actors - Member States and others - calling for the strengthening of UN Water. Now this is a big ball in court, and we are waiting for the synthesis report which will discuss current status and trends. But the real value of the synthesis report is that it will respond to the level of ambition that has been pushed out at the conference. So, UN Water will be responding to the UN system's response to what has been discussed at the conference. Strengthening has been discussed, but we need to be clear about what is meant by strengthening: it means strengthening the UN agencies united under UN Water as well as the mutual coordination capacity between the agencies. Often it is a question of resources and individuals, some may be overstretched and nevertheless need to coordinate, attend meetings, etc. So in that respect the synthesis report will indicate what is possible within current mandates, but it will also present what could be achieved with additional mandates. But ultimately it is for the Member States to decide on the course of action. 

Tobias Schmitz: Actually, the other day I came across a new harmonisation initiative between the World Food Programme and the United Nations Environmental Programme to work closer together and find synergies on both water and food security, starting by exploring shared mandates and exploring efficiency gains. So I think this is what you are talking about: how can the whole system think through its internal efficiencies, its internal cross linkages, etc. Am I right?     

Federico Properzi: Yes, we basically need the UN leadership as the main driver, and of course the UN leadership responds and reports to the Member States. So, its an iterative process. So I think that July is going to be an exciting month!